In his speech at the 1910 Edinburgh conference, Cheng Jingyi (Ching-Yi Cheng) called for “a united Christian church without any denominational distinctions.” Stating forthrightly that “denominationalism has never interested the Chinese mind,” Cheng’s presentation signaled the determination of a new generation of Chinese Christian leaders—better trained and connected—to launch a truly indigenous church in China. However, together with other Chinese leaders in what Daniel Bays calls the “Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment” (SFPE), Cheng’s disapproval of Western denominations was markedly different from the later and more militant anti-denominationalism of Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee). Founder of Local Churches (or Assembly Halls, juhuichu), Ni, in his revolutionary spirit, guided this independent Protestant group which grew to be the second largest in China prior to 1949. His theology has exerted a lasting influence on the Chinese house church and its antipathy towards denominations.
Cheng’s view of Western denominations, though by no means favorable, could be understood as a kind of “pragmatic cosmopolitanism.” Given his interdenominational experience and a general reformist spirit, Cheng saw denominations as pragmatic barriers that needed to be overcome to reach church independence. Yet in the end, all this work towards independence was not for its own sake but for ecumenical cooperation. This view was also reflected in his ambivalent relationship with missionaries: on the one hand their paternalism was to be resisted and shaken off; yet they were nonetheless deemed as equal and worthy partners in the church universal for evangelism.
By the time of Ni, such reformist confidence, along with emphasis on transition and negotiation, gave way to revolutionary fierceness and decidedness. In the aftermath of the anti-Christian movement, the foreign aspect of Christianity became a pure liability. Ni no longer saw denominational churches as worthy partners for cooperation but as sinful corruption to be cleansed. For Ni, incredible spiritual and moral clarity was needed to separate light from darkness as he sought to respond not only to his own personal crisis but also to the crisis of national dignity.
Cheng, the visionary reformer
Having returned with his multi-denominational experiences from the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow and the Edinburgh conference in the early 1910s, Cheng set out to devise his “ground plan” for establishing the Chinese Christian church. At the time, it was clear to him that both the church and the nation were in a time of transition. The Chinese church was in-between two major periods: the China Mission and the China Church. For Cheng, the former was the period when ministry was by necessity in the hands of Western missionaries, while the latter would see the Chinese church taking up its own responsibility embarking on world evangelization. The critical in-between juncture, however, called for “joint action and the united efforts” of Christians from both the East and the West.
From the beginning, Cheng saw Western denominations as essentially “church divisions” or sectarianism. If the West, given its current circumstances, could no longer roll back such historical “divisions,” then the Chinese church, young and teachable, should not settle for a mere “imaginary vision” of unity but needed to “turn over a new leaf” and achieve actual church union. This was, according to Cheng, the proper way of remembering “the saints and fathers of the old world who formed the various church organizations”—by not making them a stumbling block for people now. Even if the future Chinese church could not avoid the necessary evil of such “divisions,” says Cheng, the pragmatist, let it be the outcome of the consciousness of the Chinese church itself rather than the result of foreign imposition.
When political and nationalistic tensions heightened significantly after the May Fourth movement of 1919, Cheng found himself having to talk more explicitly on the “indigenous church” rather than a generic “Chinese church.” Nevertheless, for Cheng an indigenous church did not equal a nationalistic church. In fact, since Christianity transcends national boundaries, it ought not to rely on nationalistic feelings for support, but on life within the church that transcends racial or national prejudices. Cheng remained convinced of the universal adaptability of the Christian religion to the needs of different people. Yet the native believer must be allowed to own the faith, with the burdens, responsibilities, and joys that come with it. As long as the Chinese church has control over its own affairs, the church will, by definition, be indigenous.
Such effort to claim the church meant disowning Western denominations, for while Christianity is universal, denominations are historically a Western construct. For Cheng, why not shed this foreign import for something Chinese that is beautiful and also in line with Christianity? Again, Cheng did not so much see denominations as intrinsically evil but as extrinsic barriers to evangelize the Chinese people and to empower the Chinese church. The church being independent, or non-denominational, is really a necessary means towards equal cooperation with world churches “for the transmission of truth, of light, and of ideals… toward the meeting of the deepest religious and spiritual needs of mankind.” Essentially, the ultimate vision of Cheng was a unified and financially independent church in the ecumenical community with ministry covering both personal salvation and social services. This constituted Cheng’s ideal response to the charge of Christianity as a “foreign religion” (yangjiao).
Meanwhile, Cheng’s critique of the missionaries’ paternalism came into clearer focus by the 1920s. To Cheng, the missionaries were certainly friends with China and the Chinese church. Yet, together with their Christian faith, they also carried Western culture and institutions into China that have “delayed devolution” and often “obscured the good and beautiful in the Chinese tradition.” Their entanglement with the unequal treaty system could also be offensive to the Chinese people. In the end, such ambivalence toward the missionary establishment led to both Cheng’s critical observation of their recalcitrance towards reform and devolution as well as his hope that the Chinese church might rise in cooperation with world churches.
Ni, the fiery revolutionary
The common self-identification among contemporary house churches that they are “post-denominational” can be readily traced back to Ni Tuosheng. Ni represented the revolutionary force in Chinese Christianity which, using near absolute spiritual and moral clarity, sought to cleanse the “corruption” of the mission churches.
Out of many things that Ni Tuosheng gained from the British independent missionary Margaret Barber (Chinese name He Shouen), the introduction to the Brethren movement was of far reaching implication. It formed the most fundamental theological source to his anti-establishment thinking. With little appreciation for high-church rituals after his time at Trinity College in Fuzhou, Ni found in the works of the Brethren—John Nelson Darby in particular—the fullest and purest expression of the gospel. This tradition rejected ecclesiastical hierarchy or church government for a strong preference for local churches, deeming the Church of England as having been corrupted by the world.
For Ni, the denominational churches in China lent themselves too well to similar charges. In an early essay published in 1923, Ni rehearsed, in church language, much of the anti-Christian rhetoric. He denounced “certain pastors and evangelists” as Jesus-betraying Judases. Theirs were the churches, Ni decried, “with hymn singing from gramophone” but “without life in it,” and the Western missionaries as those who “came to China in the name of saving people without themselves being saved.” As Ni began encouraging Chinese Christians to leave mission churches, the massive exodus in the following years poured into Ni’s vision of “one church in one locality.”
Shortly after the second of his “Overcomers’ Meetings” (desheng juhui) that attracted many zealous souls in Shanghai, in December 1932, Ni recounted his early years, which included his rejection of denominations. The reason, as given by Ni, was nothing pragmatic but overwhelmingly scriptural. If Paul admonished the Corinthians against church division, Ni asks, how could he settle with his extraneous Methodist identity? After soliciting spiritual support from Barber, Ni convinced his parents and the whole family took their names off the church roster to avoid the “sin” of denominations. When a few Western missionaries visited them concerning their withdrawal, Ni explained this act of defiance not in terms of antipathy towards the practice but as mere obedience to the Bible.
It is truly remarkable how both Cheng and Ni saw denominational affiliations as sectarian divisions (fenmenbiehu or fenmen bielei). Yet Cheng, in the spirit of progressive reform and ecumenical missions, objected to denominations as a Western-imposed organizational approach. Ni, however, in his revolutionary and non-conformist spirit no longer rejected denominations extrinsically but intrinsically. Cheng was willing to work with the complexities of the transitional period and even entertained the future possibility that the Chinese church might have denomination-type divisions of its own. Ni, in contrast, was more resolute in ushering in biblical condemnation of denominations as well as the command to have only one church per locality. Essentially, the younger generation of revolutionaries no longer accepted the earlier framework of “how to indigenize.” Instead, they began forming and answering a new set of questions of “what is true and scriptural.” It became their response to the then deepened national crisis.
Assessment and conclusion
Despite the tumultuous nature of the first thirty years of 20th century China, the first decade or so saw a group of new Chinese church leaders—better educated, more visible and confident than their forefathers—coming from the treaty ports. Like their prominent example, Cheng Jingyi, many of them were able to take advantage of the Western education offered through mission schools. It enabled them to put their strong belief in patriotism and modernizing progress into practice in various social fields, even though the nexus of Christian institutions was still largely directed by foreign missions. Chinese church leaders like Cheng, with their lifelong pursuit of church independence and autonomy, were often frustrated at how slowly things were going.
These early decades also represented a slide towards a precipice. The May Fourth movement in 1919 rewrote the urban landscape intellectually and politically, setting off powerful currents of nationalism that found their targets in Western imperialism. Christianity, though perceived desirably at first as a modernizing force, would become labeled cultural imperialism, casting a long shadow on Western missionaries and Chinese Christians alike. Such a drastic turn of history helps explain the marked differences between Cheng and Ni in Chinese Christianity. Both of them came from Christian families and mission schools. Yet Ni Tuosheng, in his transformed context, was probably under greater pressure to disassociate himself from the missionary establishment—for national as well as religious reasons. When social and institutional reforms paled before the surging sociopolitical chaos, ways to live as an overcomer (desheng) became imperative despite external disturbances.
For people like Ni, there was no longer a need to salvage the Western religion for Chinese use in order to arrive at equal status with the West, for his followers believed that they had found the true way and would certainly rise above the mission churches. Yet ironically, Ni’s vision of transcending church division actually led to the formation of a prominent sectarian Chinese church. It would, compared with Cheng’s continued vulnerability within the Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment, enjoy a greater degree of autonomy and vitality until the turbulence of history found it again in the 1950s.